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Chalk it up to honesty

Guerrilla Blackboard Project reveals Victoria’s youth voice
The Leadership Victoria project team holds one guerrilla blackboard.

Guerrilla Blackboard Project reveals Victoria’s youth voice

What inspired you to get an education? A teacher having faith in me; becoming an “ologist”; spite. What matters to you in your community? Queer spaces; natural beauty; my elders; correct spelling. What does the perfect Victoria include? A home for everyone; more people playing music; knowing your neighbour.

Since Facebook’s public launch in 2006, billions of users have been typing their opinions on social media sites for much of the past decade, but one group is bringing the concept home to Victoria in a tangible way — and the messages are bright and chalky.

You may have already written on the wall of the Guerrilla Blackboard Project, a community initiative that launched this spring thanks to a group of Leadership Victoria students. The group has been out canvassing the city for the perspectives of youth and community members whose voices so often go unheard. The concept is simple: with just a few plywood boards covered in blackboard paint and some prompting questions, the four-person group aims to gather voices for their Community Action Project — the equivalent of a graduating thesis. Despite some concerns from program heads and sponsors that the boards would be a flop or would be met with callus remarks, the initiative has surprised even the coordinating team with its popularity.

“We took our first board downtown as a trial run just to see what would happen, and we were shocked. It was absolutely full within less than an hour, and the responses were amazing, thoughtful, compassionate and honest,” says Natasha Ewing, noting a few of the above responses.

On that first board, which asked Victorians “What matters to you?” the team heard answers from “family and religion” to “youth voices” to “stability” and more. One response, which stuck in Ewing’s mind, was the green handwriting that scrawled the word “Dumpsters.”

“At first, I looked at it and thought maybe this person didn’t understand the question, and then I realized the judgment I was bringing to this project,” she says. “In reality, maybe that dumpster is the most important thing in this person’s life for whatever reason. And what’s important to us is the idea that these voices now have a free, uncensored place to be heard and recognized.”

The group, which is made up of community members Dustin Ray-Wilks, Dianne McKerrell, Jennifer Harrison and Ewing, first developed their idea after seeing the 2012 Victoria Foundation’s Youth Vital Signs Report. In this document, 200 out of 43,000 youth in the Greater Victoria Region were surveyed — and youth voice received a grade of “C.” In particular, the report found that youth in the region want fewer surveys and more action. The team realized that, in order to find a way of connecting with youth from all backgrounds, something else needed to be created: something that gave youth an opportunity to express themselves creatively and have people engaged and willing to listen. And while social media has the added safe veil of anonymity, the foursome wanted more.

While exploring their options, the group came across a YouTube video by Candy Chang entitled “Before I Die I Want To…” In the video, Chang turns a rundown building in her neighbourhood into a community mural by covering one side of the building with chalkboard paint and stenciling the prompt “Before I Die I Want To…” Thousands of people were drawn to the wall and wrote down their inspiring and often heart-breaking hopes, dreams and goals. These boards have since been placed around the world and in several languages, bringing communities together and creating a positive space for the public and their voice. This, Ewing says, shaped a mission of what the group wanted to create.

As Chang said in her 2012 TED Talk about her own initiative, “It’s about knowing you’re not alone, it’s about knowing your neighbours in new and enlightening ways, it’s about making space for reflection and contemplation and about remembering what really matters most to us as we grow and change.”

Ewing says she hopes the Guerrilla Blackboard Project will provide the opportunity for youth in Greater Victoria to express their unfettered opinions, thoughts and concerns. And the team has bigger plans yet. With a total of 20 boards created and a handful filled so far, the group aims to distribute the remaining boards around the Capital Regional District in areas where youth congregate — like Vic West skatepark and Panorama Rec Centre, as well as in the West Shore and downtown. Then, the messages will be preserved with a chalk fixative and hung for display in an upcoming gallery show in May, with a location still to be announced. Afterwards, the boards will be returned to their respective checkpoints and sponsors to stimulate conversations around the messages.

“We know that youth in Sooke want something different than youth in Sidney,” says Ewing. “It’s amazing how eager everyone is to share when they’re asked. The important thing is to start having these conversations.” M

See the “Youth Tell All” exhibition and conversation Thurs., May 9, 5-7:30pm at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (1040 Moss). Visit the group’s facebook page: